What is any self-respecting quack to do in the face of criticism?
The answer in 1804 was exactly the same as it is now – turn nasty and threaten to sue the arse off everyone.
The name ‘Ching’s Worm Lozenges’ might suggest that this will be an icky-parasite post, but in a way I wish it were. Instead, this story is incredibly sad.
There were two kinds of lozenge – yellow and brown – that had to be taken at different times of day. Both contained white panacea of mercury. The travelling sales agents, however, were under strict instructions to assure customers that ‘not a single particle’ of mercury was in them.
On 4 December 1803, a little boy called Thomas Clayton, aged 3, was given the Lozenges, followed three days later by a repeat dose. He went into a high state of salivation – one of the symptoms of mercury poisoning. His parents sent for medical help, but to no avail.
…the mouth ulcerated, the Teeth dropped out, the Hands contracted, and a Complaint was made, of a pricking Pain in them and the Feet, the Body became flushed and spotted, and at last Black, Convulsions succeeded, attended with a slight delirium; and a Mortification destroyed the Face, which proceeding to the Brain, put a period (after indescribable Torments) to the life of the little sufferer, on Sunday, the 1st instant, Twenty-Eight Days after he had taken the Poisonous Lozenges.
The coroner’s verdict was ‘Poisoned by Ching’s Worm Lozenges’ and the above description is from a handbill written by the child’s father, also called Thomas Clayton. Clayton was a printer and bookseller, so was able to produce loads of these leaflets and personally deliver them all around his local neighbourhood in Kingston-upon-Hull. In them, he noted that the main Hull papers (the Packet and the Advertiser) had ignored both the death and the coroner’s verdict – probably because they received so much advertising revenue from Ching’s.
John Ching himself had died in about 1800. The business was ostensibly carried on by his widow, but really came under the control of a dodgy cove called Mr Butler.
Signing himself R. Ching, Butler responded with a broadside of his own, attacking the grieving father and threatening to prosecute him for publishing the case. He called Clayton’s words ‘malicious invective,’ ‘AN INFAMOUS ASSERTION and ABOMINABLE FALSEHOOD,’ and said he had ‘FLAGRANTLY LIBELLED TRUTH.’ These handbills were printed by Robert Peck of the Hull Packet – who, like many newspaper printers, was a vendor of patent remedies and was firmly on Butler’s side.
I don’t know whether Clayton’s grief and campaigning activities led him to neglect his business or whether he was already in financial trouble, but he was declared bankrupt about a month after his son’s death. Although the newspapers hadn’t reported the poisoning, they were quick to advertise the sale of all the Claytons’ property. In a particular act of despicableness, Robert Peck allegedly turned up at the sale and boasted to Mrs Clayton that her husband would not get away with the libel.
Clayton wanted to take the precaution of getting a written copy of the coroner’s verdict, but when he went to pick it up, he discovered that the coroner ‘had not time’ to do it. The Deputy Town Clerk was equally unhelpful, but it turned out that Butler was all talk and never went ahead with the prosecution.
By 1805 Clayton must have managed to get back in business as a printer, because he published An Essay on Quackery, and the dreadful consequences arising from taking advertised medicines; with remarks on their Fatal Effects, with an account of a recent death occasioned by a Quack medicine. The author is anonymous and is usually assumed to be Thomas Clayton himself, but I believe it to be his brother, M. J. Clayton. The 140-page essay appears cobbled together, is understandably emotional, and it reproduces lots of excerpts from other writers, but it also offers a measured, sensible list of recommendations for stamping out quackery by replacing the government’s quack-related income with duties on other activities.
This government revenue was substantial and goes a long way towards explaining why dangerous medicines were allowed to continue. Each bottle or packet had to carry a stamp – some quacks portrayed this as being a mark of official approval but, like most things in life, it was solely a way for the government to get money. I only have figures for 1839, but at that point the government was making approximately £49,300 per year from stamp duty, advertising duty, licences, patents and paper duty (for the wrappers that many remedies were sold in). It’s an awful lot of money, but the price paid by families like the Claytons was much greater.
In a letter to the Medical Observer, the Essay author is exaggeratedly humble about his literary talents, but hints at attempts to suppress the book, and confesses himself chagrined at the lack of interest from the medical faculty. He also says that his own two children narrowly escaped the same fate as little Thomas, and so the Essay‘s chilling curse on Butler clearly comes from the heart:
Dire conscience all thy guilty dreams affright,
With the most solemn horrors of the night.
The screams of infants ever fill thy ears,
And injured heav’n be deaf to all thy prayers.